Who will stand up for small business, rural Australia?by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
, June 29, 2002
There is and will remain a need in Australia for a party which represents rural and small business interests.
Currently the Nationals have all but surrendered this constituency, preferring to dissolve into the Liberals than unequivocally represent their traditional base.
Colin Teese, formerly Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade and Australian negotiator at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), explains why the Nationals face a life or death decision.The National Party was thrown into panic a few weeks back when Senator Nick Minchin decided to stir in previously undisturbed waters. He suggested publicly - no doubt what many Liberals were thinking privately - that the time had come for the National Party to merge with its Liberal partner.
At one level the anger of the National Party is understandable; at another, can it really have been so surprised at Senator Minchin's suggestion? But more of that later.
Back to Senator Minchin. It might be observed that the Senator could have disseminated his proposition more sensitively. Moreover, his stated reason for the suggestion - that a split conservative vote helps Labor - was less than convincing.
For that matter, so was his reported real
reason - that the merger was necessary in order to achieve the objective of moving the Coalition further right.
Can it really be maintained that the National Party, as presently constituted, provides a barrier to shifting the Coalition further right?
One further point about Senator Minchin. He was at pains to emphasise, at least after the National Party reacted so negatively, that the idea sprang from an initiative of his own. More so still when, at the insistence of his Coalition partner, the Prime Minister pulled him back into line.
Despite all this game-playing for the benefit of a particular audience, it is doubtful if Senator Minchin fired off his idea without the winking and nodding of some of his more influential Liberal colleagues - including, one would imagine, the Prime Minister.
And why not? The Government is, after all, travelling extremely well. For all the hopes pinned upon him, Simon Crean seems unable to make any impact upon either the Prime Minister or his government.
At other end of the scale - whatever Liberals may say or think about merger - the National Party must face the uncomfortable fact that it is falling further behind at each election.
In recent times, there has been an occasion when the Liberals did not need its support to form government. Quite soon perhaps, that time will come again. And when it does the Liberal leader may not be as tolerant as was Mr Howard. After all, the Prime Minister has never concealed the soft spot he maintains for the junior partner in the Coalition.
But even he, for all his sympathy, must surely be turning his mind to a Liberal government without the party of the bush. All the more so since the last election, when, so it seemed, it was his party, rather than the Nationals, which collected the One Nation vote.
The Nationals have, of course, maneuvered themselves into this perilous position entirely unaided. Have they not, after all, embraced the current free trade orthodoxy with unseemly enthusiasm? Yet the current leader of the National Party , Mr John Anderson, seems hardly to have noticed.
In an effort to put the unwelcome attentions of Senator Minchin behind him, Mr Anderson chose to resurrect the opinions of none other than former leader John McEwen. Back in the late sixties McEwen spoke powerfully in support of the view that there would always be a place in the conservative lexicon of Australian politics for the National Party.
If it were to disappear, McEwen maintained( and he was speaking of the former Country Party), another similar party would quickly be created; because in relating to country people, the party had 'a different economic and social philosophy' from its Liberal partner.
Quite extraordinarily, Anderson seized upon his quote and appeared to believe that it described the current state of his party.
McEwen, of course, was right. That distinction is the only true basis upon which the Nationals can differentiate themselves from the Liberals. But his Country Party was a far cry from the National Party Mr Anderson now leads. Under Anderson's leadership - and that of his immediate predecessors - the National Party has been aligning itself ever more closely with the Liberal Party policy and direction.
Is it any wonder that the ideas of Senator Minchin seemed - to some at least - as a move in the right direction?Party adrift
The National Party is, in many important respects in the same unhappy position as Labor. In embracing, what, on the face of it seems a popular form of economic orthodoxy, it has cut itself adrift from its own support base. The way back will not be easy.
In the case of the Nationals, the support base can only be recaptured by taking up at least some of the positions John McEwen championed when he was party leader. To do that would require of the present leadership an acknowledgement that the recent direction had been misguided. And one must question how possible is that.
Particularly, what must be renounced is the idea that effectively all of the traditional forms of support for the farm sector be withdrawn. This presupposes that, like manufacturing industry, farmers should be left to the ebb and flow of market forces. In manufacturing, whole towns have been adversely affected by exposing key industries to the raw force of import competition.
In general terms the same fate awaits farmers similarly exposed. In detail, however, the problems are slightly different, because the farm sector has always been more dependent upon export markets than has manufacturing industry. (Though not nearly so much as many National Party politicians committed to free trade would like us to believe.)
What McEwen knew - and the party's present leadership prefers to overlook - is that the domestic market is the key to our farm industries' having the possibility of staying in export, given that world market prices are kept permanently low by subsidised product flooding the world market.
What the present National Party leadership appears to believe is that international co-operation in the World Trade Organisation can rid the world of farm subsidies. McEwen was less naive. Though he too wanted to see an end to farm subsidies and was happy to support international co-operation, he believed, realistically, that while ever the subsidies remained, charity began at home.
Farm support, McEwen style, rested upon the idea of a domestic price maintained at a level sufficient to give farm product exporters some relief from the ruinously low prices on world markets. The European Union, has and always did, follow the same policy. The US does it differently - though direct taxpayer supported subsidies. But the end purpose is, in either case, to support farmers incomes. To take Margaret Thatcher out of context, 'there is no other way.'Rural industries devastated
We have already seen with manufacturing industry what happens when industries are thrown to the competitive wolves. The same is now happening with farm industries. The dairy industry has been devastated. Sugar, and perhaps wheat, are beginning to go the same way.
Sugar is especially difficult because it is so closely identified with a single region - North Queensland. If sugar goes, what happens to North Queensland? That is the question for the National Party. Because if its support in Queensland is withdrawn (and the collapse of sugar could well mean that), then the party would be reduced to a tiny rump.
None of this the National Party needs this writer to tell them. What they don't seem able to grasp is the problems of sugar will not be solved while ever solutions must be drawn from within the present economic circle. And the same applies to other farm industries in trouble.
If the Party can't break free of the economic shackles within which present Liberal policies contain them, then the likelihood is that Mc Ewen's prophecy will be fulfilled, and a new party free of those constraints is likely to be created.